Ron Rees knew a firestorm awaited him when his plane touched down 50 years ago in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam. What he did not know was where to run.
Rees, who now lives in Cove, was one of about two dozen Marines preparing to exit a C-130 transport plane at the U.S. military base in Khe Sahn, then the site of one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles. The North Vietnamese were punishing every American plane with such heavy fire that pilots weren’t stopping their aircraft when they touched down and were taking off again as quickly as possible to avoid becoming a stationary target.
“They (flight personnel) were telling us that we were flying into hell and this plane was not going to stop,” Reese recalled. “(We were told), ‘When (the plane) touches ground, we’re throwing your gear out and you are going with it.’”
The Marines were instructed to run quickly to a bunker after leaving the plane. Rees then asked, “Where do you go to find a bunker? Right or left?”
Rees received a response but not an answer: “You just have to find one.”
Moments later, the young Marine was in the midst of his first combat experience, running from bullets, rockets and mortars.
“I was scared to death. I didn’t know what was going on,” Rees said. “No amount of combat training can prepare you for that.”
Rees somehow made it to a bunker, but he said other Marines were killed before they could reach safety.
Rees, then a member of Bravo Company’s 1st Battalion, 26th Marines Regiment, talks about this and other experiences in Khe Sanh in a documentary about the battle. He is one of 15 soldiers interviewed in “Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.”
Up until now, the film, which was written and directed by Ken and Betty Rodgers and put out by Kingfisher Arts in 2014, was shown only at special screenings.
Now available to the public for the first time, the documentary may be purchased or rented on Amazon Video.
Rees rarely spoke about his experiences in Khe Sanh prior to being interviewed for the documentary.
“It was the first time I had talked about it for an extended period,” Rees said.
Talking about the experience has helped with the healing process, he said, especially when he has been able to do so with other combat veterans.
Rees said his most terrifying moments at Khe Sanh were between the time he could hear a mortar shell being launched by the North Vietnamese and when it landed.
“You could hear it leave the tube and you knew how many seconds you had until impact. From the time you heard it leave the tube, you imagined death,” Rees said.
Fortunately, Rees never took a direct hit from any mortars, but he was rocked countless times by their reverberations, which exacted a physical toll.
“Blood would be running out of my ears and nose,” he said. “The shock wave, the concussion that comes off them just bounces your body off the ground. Some Marines had blood coming out of their hands (because of the shock waves from mortars).”
Rees and all Marines at Khe Sanh spent much of their time in trenches and bunkers, which provided a measure of security. When he went above ground, though, he often found himself in peril.
“Sniper rounds would be buzzing you like mosquitoes,” he recalled. “Sometimes you would hear something buzz past you and (a moment later) you realized that it had been a bullet.”
Attacks on the Khe Sanh base could happen at any hour, but they were a regular occurrence at night. Attacks would sometimes go on throughout the entire night.
“Hell began when the sun went down,” Rees said.
Large stationary cannon-like guns delivered the most destructive rounds on Khe Sanh, sometimes for hours on end, until American B-52s would knock out the guns with bombs.
“There would be no hope, no prayer, no let up, until you heard thundering B-52s. That was the most beautiful sound,” Rees said.
Rees joined the Marines in 1966 in part to continue a family legacy of serving the United States. His father and his uncle both fought for the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II, participating in two of its most famous battles. Rees’s father fought in the Battle of the Bulge and his uncle fought at Iwo Jima.
Rees was in Khe Sanh from March 1, 1968, until March 23 when he was flown out after suffering multiple wounds, including a serious leg injury. He received an honorable discharge in 1969, before his term of enlistment was up, because of the wounds he sustained.
Rees moved to Union County with his wife, Tami, and their two daughters about 20 years ago. He has worked in the Cove and La Grande school districts since 2003, coaching multiple sports such as football and basketball at the middle school and high school levels.
Coaching and spending time with his family are the joys of his life, Rees said, joys he has a heightened appreciation of after his experiences in Vietnam.
“It just tells you how fast life really happens or goes away from you. Not minutes, seconds, it’s one-hundredth of a second and it’s gone,” said Rees, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Men” has received two honors — the Major Hatch Award in the documentary feature category from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation in 2016 and the 2015 GI Film Festival’s Best Documentary Feature award.
Rees is delighted that the film is being recognized and is now available for all to see.
He noted that the documentary lists the names of the many military personnel who died at Khe Sanh, which is keeping their memories alive.
“I believe that someone never dies as long as people are talking about them,” Rees said. “The only time people really die is when people stop talking about them.”